Israeli ambassador praises wartime pope

June 24, 2011

(RNS) In a conciliatory gesture regarding one of the most sensitive
points of Jewish-Catholic relations, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican
praised the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII for his "actions to save
the Jews" during the Holocaust.

Mordechay Lewy made his remarks Thursday (June 23) at a ceremony
honoring an Italian priest who helped protect Jews during the Nazi
occupation of Rome. The ambassador said many Catholic institutions in
the city had hidden Jews from the Germans during mass arrests on October
16, 1943.

"There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision
of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about" steps to
protect Jews, Lewy said, according to the Reuters news agency.

"So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the
Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the
contrary, the opposite is true," Lewy added.

Critics say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, failed to do or say
all he could to stop the Nazis' persecution and genocide of the Jews.
"I am aware this is going to raise some eyebrows in the Rome Jewish
community," Lewy said after the speech. "But this refers to saving Jews,
which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did
not do and which Jews were expecting from him."

In December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared the Pius "venerable"
and thus eligible for beatification, the rank just below sainthood.

Benedict has said he made his decision after an informal
investigation of still-sealed wartime records in the Vatican Archives.

Pius "saved more Jews than anyone else," Benedict said, and failed
to protest publicly only out of fear that the Germans would deport
thousands of Jews under the church's protection.

Critics have called for those records to be made accessible to all
scholars before the Vatican makes any decision on Pius's beatification
or possible sainthood.